x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Al Sadd's climb sums up Qatari football ambitions

Al Sadd's ascent up the football food chain was planned a decade ago, when stars from Europe were signed to play in the Qatari league. Now, with a semi-final match in the Club World Cup against Barcelona, Al Sadd is the epitome of Qatari ambition.

Nadir Belhadj and his Al Sadd teammates train ahead of their semi-final Club World Cup match against Barcelona. The Qatari club is proving to be the 'little big team' of the tournament.
Nadir Belhadj and his Al Sadd teammates train ahead of their semi-final Club World Cup match against Barcelona. The Qatari club is proving to be the 'little big team' of the tournament.

 

It is widely assumed that the end of the Qatari adventure at the Club World Cup will be signalled fairly early on Thursday in Yokohama.

Any fixture involving Barcelona makes the other side second favourite, and if that team are novices to this grade of competition, as Al Sadd are, the expectations are even further in favour of the Europeans in the tournament being staged in Japan.

But where the juggernaut that is Qatari football is concerned, the possibility of a famous upset should not be entirely discounted.

Qatar were hardly considered favourites to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup; they got it.

Al Sadd were considered outsiders for the last Asian Champions League; they won it.

The Qatari champions went into their Club World Cup quarter-final on Sunday against Esperance of Tunisia as underdogs; they triumphed 2-1 against the Africans.

The rise of the Doha side as a force within Asian football, and now their elevated profile in Fifa's major club competition, are linked to the country's push for greater status in the world's most popular sport.

A growing Qatari presence across the club game is felt as far away as Barcelona, who wear the words "Qatar Foundation" across their jerseys, at France's Paris Saint-Germain and Spain's Malaga, where majority shareholdings are in Qatari hands, so much so it is possible to imagine the Gulf nation must have a preference for investment in football overseas rather than at home.

"That's not the case," Franck Leboeuf, the former Al Sadd and France player said. "When I joined them, in 2003, I was expecting a much smaller club. It seemed huge when I got there, well financed [and] with a lot of government money, and superbly organised in terms of facilities."

Nearly a decade ago, Leboeuf was in the vanguard of overseas stars signed up to the Qatari league.

Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona head coach, was among others who played there in that period.

The recruitment of footballers with a strong pedigree in European or South American leagues remains key to advancing the game in Qatar, as in the UAE, and it is a trio of foreign footballers who have contributed most to Al Sadd's recent progress.

"I don't have superstars like Barcelona do," said Jorge Fossati, the head coach, "but I have good footballers, especially the overseas players. If we sign foreigners, it's because we expect more from them."

The key expatriates in Fossati's squad are all Africans. Eighteen months ago, Nadir Belhadj, the attacking left-back, and Abdul Kader Keita, the skilled winger, were both at the World Cup finals, with Algeria and Ivory Coast respectively.

Nineteen months ago, Mamadou Niang, the Senegal international striker, was captaining Olympique Marseille to the French league title.

These are worldly, experienced players and each of them fiercely competitive.

Keita's World Cup in 2010 was most memorable, alas, for his clash with Brazil's Kaka during a group match.

Niang and Keita were at the centre of controversy during Al Sadd's victory over Suwon Bluewings in the Asian Champions League semi-final, when Keita played the ball to Niang, who scored, after the Korean team's players had assumed Keita or Niang would give them the ball because they had played it out so an injured teammate could receive treatment.

Both were later sent off in that game. Belhadj was among three Algerians dismissed in a notorious Africa Cup of Nations semi-final last year against Egypt.

Besides the spats, this trio have plenty of class.

"They all have the talent to bother Barcelona," said Leboeuf, who counted a young Keita among his teammates during his season in Qatar.

The Ivorian then moved to France, first to Lille and then for nearly €19 million (Dh90m) to Lyon. He was with Galatasary before Al Sadd invested €8.5m in signing him a second time.

Niang played most of his club football in France, for Metz and Strasbourg before he became the darling of Marseille's Stade Velodrome. A season with Fenerbahce followed, before his €7.5m (Dh35.8m) move to Doha.

As for Belhadj, he was born in France, moved from Lens to Portsmouth in 2008 and reached an FA Cup final with the English club.

It is safe to report that each of them could certainly still be playing in one of the stronger European leagues if they chose to, which is partly why Fossati, trying to give visiting Spanish reporters in Yokohama an idea of the strength of his side, compared his team to a mid-table Spanish Primera Liga club.

"I watched Barcelona's recent matches against Mallorca and Getafe and I don't see much difference in standard between Al Sadd and those two teams," he said.

He chose his examples wisely - Getafe were the last team to beat Barcelona.

 

sports@thenational.ae

UAE TV: Barcelona v Al Sadd, 2.30pm, Aljazeera Sport +1 & 2HD